Natural deodorants are all the rage these days, especially because of claims that aluminum, the active ingredient in most over-the-counter antiperspirants, can increase the risk of cancer or has links to Alzheimer’s disease.
However, I have tried tons of natural deodorants and I’ve never found one that’s a good enough replacement for my drugstore go-to, and I’m not alone. As Arielle Nagler, a dermatologist and professor in NYU Langone Medical Center’s Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology told Vice, if a natural deodorant doesn’t have any antibacterial properties, it might prove ineffective. (More on that connection between sweat and antibacterial ingredients later.)
Sometimes I consider going back to regular old aluminum-based antiperspirants, but then I stop myself, convinced it’s not good for me.
After a recent conversation among colleagues, we wondered: How bad is aluminum in our antiperspirant really? Is it time for us all to ditch it for good? HuffPost asked dermatologists to give us the answer, once and for all.
First, there’s a difference between deodorant and antiperspirant.
Though many people use the terms deodorant and antiperspirant interchangeably, they aren’t the same thing. Simply put, deodorants help block body odor but don’t stop you from sweating. Antiperspirants typically contain aluminum, which blocks sweat glands, in turn reducing sweat excretion, said Dr. Forum Patel, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York.
Interestingly, as the folks at Thomson Tee, a company that makes sweat-proof T-shirts, pointed out, the Food and Drug Administration classifies antiperspirants as a drug since they prevent sweat, which is a natural bodily function.
Deodorant, on the other hand, doesn’t usually contain aluminum. Instead, it typically works by masking odor with fragrances or using properties to combat the bacteria that break down sweat.
“The sweat digests the top layer of our skin, and bacteria eats up those dead skin cells,” Patel said. That action is what causes body odor, she added.
“The reason why people use aluminum-based deodorants and they smell less is because they’re essentially blocking the sweat glands, so the bacteria on the top of your skin never sees the sweat, therefore never creates that odor,” Patel said.
Here’s why natural deodorants can help with odor: A lot of them contain essential oils, some of which have antibacterial properties, like tea tree oil, for example. The antibacterial properties in certain essential oils could help with odor, Dr. Charisse Dolitsky, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology in New York, told HuffPost.
Simply put, antiperspirant blocks sweat while deodorant deals with the odor.
So what’s the main concern here?
Generally speaking, the biggest concern has to do with the aluminum in antiperspirant.
According to Patel, there are two main “ill associations” with aluminum. The first has to do with an old theory that aluminum is in some way associated with Alzheimer’s disease, she said. The theory can be traced back to 1965, when scientists found that rabbits injected with extremely high doses of aluminum developed the same tangles ― twisted fibers of tau proteins that build up in cells ― in the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s.
The second negative association with aluminum, particularly in antiperspirants, is that it might be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. However, according to the National Cancer Institute, “no scientific evidence links the use of these products to the development of breast cancer.”
“That theory kind of came up because when we think about where we put on deodorant, the closest area of your breast is the right upper quadrant. And what [researchers] saw was that the majority of breast cancers started in the right upper quadrant,” Patel said.
As a result, it was hypothesized that aluminum-based deodorants might be responsible for causing cancer. It was believed that they penetrate into the bloodstream and wreak havoc on breast cells, eventually mutating into cancer.
So, should we ditch the aluminum-based antiperspirant for good?
The short answer is no. When it comes to aluminum’s links to both Alzheimer’s and cancer, the doctors we spoke to agreed there isn’t enough conclusive evidence to prove either theory. So, if you’re an aluminum-based antiperspirant devotee, you can rest a little easier.
“Everybody has some aluminum in their bodies,” Dolitsky said. “There’s aluminum in water, there’s aluminum in food, in pots and pans and utensils, and cosmetics. But the amount that you would need, the evidence does not show you’re going to absorb that from deodorant and antiperspirants.”
In terms of cancer specifically, Dolitsky added that “there’s no conclusive evidence to show that aluminum deodorant causes breast cancer, even if you have higher prescription-strength aluminum deodorant and even if somebody just shaved and put it in their skin.”
“The amount of absorption that somebody’s getting from that is negligible,” she said.
Dolitsky did note, however, that some people with more sensitive skin might find aluminum-based products irritating or drying.
At the end of the day, use what works for you.
Dr. Samer Jaber, a dermatologist at Washington Square Dermatology in New York City, said his advice would be to just use whatever is best for you.
“There’s limited science that shows aluminum is harmful,” he noted, adding that he uses a product with aluminum.
If natural is what you’re after, Patel added one reminder: “I think the big faux pas is that a lot of these companies market their products as being all natural, but even the most natural things can cause severe reactions.”
She gave the example of poison ivy, which, of course, isn’t something you’d want to use on your skin.
“Just because something’s natural, doesn’t make it OK to use,” Patel said. “I’m not saying these deodorants are bad, but I think there’s a consumer misconception that natural products are all good and things with chemicals are all bad.”